133. The Constellation Myths of Eratosthenes (c. 220 BC) and Hyginus (c.24 BC)

Plot:   ‘Eratosthenes’ and Hyginus’ descriptions of the astral myths, or catasterismi, used to describe how figures or items from mythological stories became enshrined in the Heavens, and are often ‘tacked on’ to the original myths.

My version is the Oxford University Press volume Constellation Myths, containing both Aratus’ Phaenomena and Eratosthenes’ Catasterismi, (with Hyginus’ expanded version of the myths from his Poetical Astronomy), translated by Robin Hard (ISBN 9780198716983)

My thoughts: Although Eratosthenes (276-194 BC) is often claimed to be the author of the Catasterismi, there is some doubt. The original is lost to posterity, so we only have some sets of fragments (one known as the Vatican fragments) which seem to be annotations to the original text by Aratus (see post #130). Hyginus came along roughly two hundred years later and expanded on Eratosthenes’ notes.  Hence reading about each constellation is quite repetitive as you read Eratosthenes’ version/s, then Hyginus’, then the modern editor’s commentary on both.  Still there is far more mythological than astronomical detail so the volume is a wealth of information and treasure for myth lovers, including variations to the stories and alternate stories for many of the astral myths. The inclusion of an illustration of each separate constellation would have been nice, as the two hemisphere maps provided are small and crowded and not much use beyond the slightest of aesthetics.

Interesting tidbits include:

  • Perseus slew Medusa while she slept, not by watching her reflection in his shiny shield as she stalked him through the catacombs  (thanks, Hollywood!!)
  • The modern medical symbol of the caduceus (two snakes entwined around a staff) actually originally represented peace, as the story tells of Hermes placing his wand between two fighting serpents.
  • Speaking of medicine, the great healer Asclepios was such a good doctor he could raise the dead, so Zeus struck him down with a thunderbolt for rivalling the power of the Gods.
  • Scorpio is so large that the stars representing its claws are actually the sign for Libra (the Scales). Mythic Orion the Hunter (one of the most famous constellations) was killed by a giant scorpion, so night sky observers will see that Orion sets as Scorpio rises, perpetually in pursuit.
  • Apparently centaurs never used bows, so Sagittarius (the Archer) cannot be a centaur.
  • The Greek gods were attacked by the monstrous Typhon in Egypt and turned into animals to escape, including an ibis (Hermes), a cat (Artemis) and a goat (Pan). This story might be a way of adopting Egyptian art into Greek mythology. The zodiac sign for Capricorn (half-goat, half-fish) may have been Pan trying to swim away.
  • One of the explanations of Aquarius (The Water Bearer) is that he is the Demon of the Nile, regulating its crucial flow of water.

Eratosthenes (whether the author of the Catasterismi or not) was a polymath in his own right, devising a way to measure the circumference of the Earth as well as writing on geography, mathematics, philosophy and literature. Sadly, he is reputed to have starved himself to death when he went blind and could no longer read or observe things around him.

Diversions and digressions:

Gigantomachy : the war between the Giants and the Olympian Gods, (not to be confused with the Titanomachy which was the war between the Titans and the Olympians)

Personal rating:  6/10

Kimmy’s rating:  Liked the stories about Canus Minor. 3 out of 4 paws.

Also in that year: Between 245 and 220 BC, Rome’s rule extends to Sicily, Sardinia,  Corsica and North Italy, and Roman literature can be recognised. Carthaginian forces invade Spain but are beaten back from Sicily by the Romans. Elsewhere, Macedonia takes control of Sparta, and Buddhism spreads to Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

Next :  The start of Latin literature (finally) with the early plays of Plautus. Hail Rome!!!!

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